WSW: How Aaron Burr Went From Vice-President To Facing Trial For Treason

May 16, 2018

Credit Princeton University Press

Aaron Burr nearly became President of the United States in the election of 1800. Instead, Thomas Jefferson was elected President and Burr Vice President. Burr only served one term as Vice President, and in 1807 faced trial for Treason. 

Kalamazoo College History Professor James Lewis chronicles Burr’s political career and the suspicions surrounding him after leaving office in his book, The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis. Lewis spoke with Zinta Aistars, a version of the interview originally aired on WMUK’s Between the Lines in February.

Jefferson was re-elected President in 1804, and it was clear Burr would not be Vice President for a second term. Lewis says it was believed that Burr was trying to gain support for a mysterious enterprise.

“Here’s a man with tremendous ambition, who has been in the second highest office in the land, and is now tremendously frustrated, and what is he going to do next?”

The term “The Burr Conspiracy” comes from the time, but Lewis says it isn’t clear whether there actually was a conspiracy.

“I set out on the project thinking I was going to answer the question that nobody had ever answered. And that I would just be willing to do whatever research it took to really be able to answer the question.”

But Lewis found out that there just isn’t enough evidence to answer the question either way. However, Lewis says the story tells us something about early America. He says it’s also striking how certain people were at the time about Burr’s guilt or innocence.

“They knew that he was guilty, that he was a traitor, or conversely they knew that he wasn’t guilty, that he was merely the victim of Jefferson’s political fury.”